Sunday, February 25, 2018
Education

On school impact fees, Hernando commissioners follow builders down the road to nowhere

Not now.

In a few years, maybe, when the market's picked up — then we can make new home construction pay for itself. Then we can charge school impact fees.

Last week, when a four-member majority of the Hernando County Commission arrogantly dismissed the pleas of school officials and the calculations of a consultant they had helped pay for — when they chose a politically powerful industry over quality education — this seemed to be the consensus:

The county can't levy education impact fees — a fair-share contribution to schools for each new home built — on an industry that is still depressed.

First of all, I'm not sure I believe that most of the commissioners will suddenly be okay with impact fees at some point in the future. If that were the case, they wouldn't have also rejected the suggestion of the one-member minority, Diane Rowden, that the fees be phased in slowly.

Builders just need time? That's exactly what Rowden proposed giving them.

But even this assumption is flawed, that healing this industry just requires the passage of a few more years.

As I've written before, the collapse of the real estate market last decade was more than a particularly big dip in demand. It may have even been The Great Reset, social theorist Richard Florida wrote in a book of the same name.

At the very least, it resulted in changes in attitudes and development patterns he and other writers have documented, especially the concentration of resources and people in cities and away from suburbs.

It's in the results of surveys that show home buyers want walkable neighborhoods served with mass transit. It's apparent in the investments of companies long associated with the suburbs, such as Walmart, which is now building more stores in cities than outside of them.

And, not surprisingly, the same pattern can be seen in the number of building permits pulled in various counties and in the population estimates released last month by the state Bureau of Economic and Business Research: robust growth in urban cores and stagnation that increases according to the distance away from these cities.

Hillsborough County added nearly 50,000 new residents between 2010 and 2013, and Pasco County (where impact fees for a 2,500-square-foot home can top $15,000) gained nearly 9,000, while Hernando's population crept up by slightly more than 1,000 new residents, a miniscule annual growth rate of .2 percent.

The point is that a lot of people don't want to live in the middle of nowhere. And until Hernando becomes more than just a satellite of Tampa, that is just how it will be seen.

No, growth here won't come to a complete standstill. Even though fewer retirees are moving to Florida, the pool of aging baby boomers is still enormous. As the sinkhole and foreclosure crises slowly pass, some of the more budget-conscious among them will certainly build new homes in Hernando.

But I don't see us returning to the old, pre-boom "normal" that builders and commissioners talked about last week — 1,000 to 1,200 new homes per year. And, to their credit, the builders I talked to after the meeting recognize this possibility, and say the threshold for returning to the payment of impact fees might be something less than 1,000 homes per year.

Yes, some commissioners say they realize the building industry won't lead Hernando to prosperity. They talk a lot about the need to diversify the economy, which is one way of making Hernando a somewhere.

But so far, they've missed two big opportunities to show that this is more than talk.

Last year, they dismissed the smart suggestion of another expert paid with our tax money: that the county use reduced impact fees to focus growth in its centers of population and job creation — Spring Hill, Brooksville and the industrial area around the county airport.

And nothing builds community like a good school system, and last week's decision robbed ours of revenue that it desperately needs, even if future growth is not especially robust.

Instead, the Republican majority on the commission listened to an industry that includes Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the local party and vice chairman of the statewide one.

Remember, last year, when these four commissioners lined up with him when he announced his candidacy for state representative?

Well, now they seem determined to follow his industry down the road to nowhere.

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